For a considerable amount of time, I have been watching the heated public debate around the unique regulation style and bravado of the Kenya Film Classification Board (KFCB) with interest.
With humility, I wish to wade into the conversation and focus on implementation of KFCB mandate vis-à-vis the potential damage.
Perhaps it’s time we put a stop to the rhetoric of limiting both individual and corporate spaces through illegal and unsustainable censorships.
The board’s overzealous CEO Ezekiel Mutua, for example, has proposed registering every device that is uploading any content to social media.
He has proposed regulating public performances, blacklisted some musicians and attempted to keep Netflix – the online movie-streaming forum – out of the country. He has taken issue with Coca-Cola’s “taste the feeling” commercial.
From the onset, may I state that I have no personal differences with Mr Mutua, whom I respect as a consummate professional and a personal friend. I admire his enthusiasm. KFCB and Cofek are partners on specific issues.
His attention to detail can clearly be seen from the way he keeps his hair great and shining and through his well-tailored suits. He is on record stating that he has no political motivation with his censorship, but wants to preserve Kenya’s “culture and national values.”
For some time, we thought Mr Mutua was actually working for the social and economic good of the country and its citizens until he opened yet more wars with beer advertisers. Indeed the Consumers Federation of Kenya has had issues with some alcohol manufacturers in the past, but this does not mean we don’t vouch for them when their operational space is invaded.
The ongoing doctors and lecturers strike indicates need for more taxes. I, therefore, find the weak link for KFCB to be the lack of balance between their aggressive moral policing and the need to raise national revenue – including their own budgetary allocation!
On alcohol ads, KFCB ran into headwinds with the National Alcoholic Beverages Association of Kenya (Nabak) after it banned local television stations from airing beer and contraceptive advertisements without its approval.
Mr Mutua’s attempted clampdown on advertisements from the alcoholic beverage industry could have been done better. Otherwise it remains provocative, unconvincing and unrealistic.
Some debates are better limited to non-formal, less serious forums such as social media, but important issues that can impact revenue, the amount of taxes collected and employment – such as KFCB insisting that all alcohol adverts are withheld until classified – reeks of counter-productive censorship.
While I cannot speak for private sector firms, the KFCB move is an unjustifiable and excessive limitation on private firms’ right to inform the public about their products. After all, Article 46(1) (b) of the Constitution states that consumers have the right to the information necessary for them to gain full benefit from goods and services.
It should be stated for the benefit of all that as it stands, there are already regulations that govern alcohol and cigarette adverts. The Advertisers Standards Committee, media and companies are expected to enforce the guidelines.
What we need is certification to guide consumers to make informed decisions – to avoid wrong choices and bar juvenile audiences from accessing such adverts, but not unlawful and unsupported censorship. If the guidelines are to be observed strictly, in due course, no adverts or film will engage with the harsh reality of Mr Mutua’s self-proscribed moral standards.
Who knows? It might be so hard that even Tom and Jerry cartoon might well fail to meet Mr Mutua’s self-styled test.
Clearly, KFCB is overstepping its mandate as the statutory body tasked with classifying films to push through a draconian set of regulations to govern adverts, films and online content that will significantly threaten free expression.
We don’t deny that some of the board’s actions might be motivated to guard public interest and protect users from harmful content, but on closer examination, Mr Mutua’s overzealousness could lead the country the wrong way.
As a State corporation, the mandate of KFCB is about regulation of the creation, broadcasting, possession and distribution of films and has no jurisdiction over television content or advertising.
Stephen Mutoro is secretary-general, Consumers Federation of Kenya.